Friday, August 04, 2006

The need for a Vatican III

The following is a speech given by James Caroll, the author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, upon receiving the Melcher Book Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association for that best-selling work at a Cambridge Forum on Thursday, April 18, 2002. The book is a powerful and disturbing analysis of the history of Christian, especially Roman Catholic, anti-semitism. In it he argues that Christians took anti-Semitic forks in the road when they might well have written a less tragic history by following another road. Carroll depicts Christian attitudes towards Jews as grudging acceptance at best, a general hostility, and a long series of atrocities culminating in the shoah, Hitler's 'final solution.'

No peace.

No peace among nations without peace among religions. No peace among religions without serious religious dialogue. No serious religious dialogue without basic investigations and corrections of foundational assumptions.

A paraphrase of the great mantra of our contemporary public life - who'd have thought it - from Hans Kung, the great contemporary Swiss Roman Catholic theologian. Constantine's Sword is a history of Christian anti-semitism, culminating, of course, in the great revelation of its inexorable dynamic that was the holocaust, and at the conclusion of Constantine's Sword, in a way the most controversial portion of this book, I draw conclusions from the history that require fundamental correction of basic assumptions of my own Roman Catholic tradition, and in this evening's observance, I presume to read one argument for correction that was a conclusion of my study of Christian anti-semitism culminating in the holocaust and the reason I am reading it is because of its evident relevance to the broad present crisis in Roman Catholicism having nothing to do with anti-semitism that has gripped the public imagination so powerfully in recent months. Aware of the poignant, shameful and tragic fact that what the holocaust failed to do, [that is, to ] evoke a broad and urgent sense of the need for reform in the Catholic people, the priestly sex abuse scandal has done quite powerfully in a very short time. The broad urgent sense of the need for reform in the Catholic people and beyond the Catholic people of this institution. At the end of Constantine's Sword, I propose that many Catholics of my kind long for a third Vatican council, a fundamental institutional act of correction - self criticism - and I presume to read for you this evening, because of its present relevance, what I call Agenda Item 4 of my proposal for Vatican III, "The holiness of democracy", an agenda item prompted in this book by the history of Christian anti-semitism, but clearly called for by the urgent present crisis.

So, agenda item #4 for this dreamed third Vatican council:

The holiness of Democracy

My dear fellow citizens;
For forty years on this day you have heard from my predecessors the same thing in a number of variations, how our country is flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produce, how happy we all are, how we trust our government and what bright prospects lie ahead of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I too should lie to you.
So began the address with which the playright and dissident Václav Havel assumed the presidency of Czechoslovakia. The speech was delivered on that first day of 1990. The momentuous events of the previous months in the nations of eastern Europe symbolized by the breaching of the Berlin wall in November of 1989 had amounted to an unpredicted outbreak of democratic fervor, as Havel put it, humanistic and democratic traditions about which there had been so much idle talk did after all slumber in the unconscious of our nations and our national minorities. In that short period the social structures of totalitarianism were transformed, not only in the satellite states of the Soviet Union, but in Russia itself, not only in Europe but in South Africa, and the dramatic changes came about almost completely without blood in the streets because the masses of ordinary people in many nations discovered within themselves an irresistible civic identification, an urge to participate in the public life of society, a readiness to claim those nations as their own. Citizens of western Europe and of America, where democratic traditions were already established, could only behold the political transformation of the velvet revolution with an unbridled sense of wonder. What we saw played out again and again in those years, acts of staggering courage, Havel declining a strings-attached release from prison, Lech Wałęsa openly convening meetings of the outlawed Solidarity, Boris Yeltzin standing on that Russian tank saying, in effect, you will have to kill me to do this. What we saw played out was the drama of democracy itself, entire peoples taking responsibility for themselves and for their societies. We in the west had never seen before so clearly how the political system under which we lived and which we took for granted counted as a moral absolute. Democracy was a value of the highest order, and the impulse to embrace it, at great cost, lived unquenchably in the human heart. Beginning in 1989, the world beheld something sacred and the business of a third Vatican council must be to honor that sacredness. Vatican III must end the church tradition of opposition to, or at best ambivalence about, democracy. Vatican III, that is, must celebrate the dignity of every human life. Vatican II must uphold the importance of treating each one equally. Vatican III must affirm the holiness of democracy.

To their everlasting credit the Christian churches of Europe supported and in some instances sponsored the 1980s' flowering of democratic spirit. The churches were especially helpful in keeping violence at bay. Lutheran pastors in east Germany played crucial roles in challenging the German democratic republic and the Catholic church especially in Poland was a source of spiritual and at times political inspiration and sustenance to the dissidents and pope John Paul II himself was an avatar of anti-communist resistance. His biographers uniformly credit him sometimes with Ronald Reagan as the man who did the most to bring down the totalitarian system that he had opposed since his youth in Krakow. Opposition to Stalinism is not the same thing, however, as support for the principle of constitutional democracy, and the Roman Catholic church has yet to shed its suspicion of, and even its hostility to governments that invest the people with ultimacy, or rather, governments in which the people do the investing. This has been especially true in the Vatican suppression of liberation theology, which is a religious affirmation of the politican ideal of "rights for all". Thus, in opposing Soviet totalitarianism, the Catholic church nevertheless maintained its internal commitment to methods that undergird totalitarianism, which was why, even as the system crumbled, the church was doing its part to support Latin American oligarchies. The same John Paul II who sponsored the most politically engaged Catholic church of modern times in Poland, even to the extent of funneling large sums of money from the Vatican to Solidarity condemned, silenced, and disciplined priests and nuns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Haiti, and Mexico because of their so-called political activity. The pope who wants to make Pius XII a saint is reticent about Oscar Romero, the bishop of El Salvador who was slain at the altar. The pope who rallied against the ruthless dictators of communism was the first and only head of state in the world to recognize the legitimacy of the military junta that overthrew the democratically elected president of Haiti and former priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide. I say "so-called" political activity because the priests and nuns of the liberation insisted that their actions had more to do with their reading of the gospel than any political tract. Observers of the difference between the Catholic hierarchy in, say, Poland where the church lent support to Solidarity, and in Nicaragua, where the church was a [pititive] channel of money from the CIA during Reagan's Contra war, were left with the feeling that it was not totalitarianism as such that the church opposed, only totalitarianism that was unfriendly to the church. It was one thing for pope Innocent III to declare the Magna Carta null and void in 1215 bacause it violated the divinely instituted order of hierarchy, and it was quite another for the Vatican to equate pluralism with marxism as it did in 1999. It is impossible to reconcile a rejection of pluralism with an authentic commitment to democracy, and a Catholic devotion to the eradication of pluralism remains dangerous. Internal church policies have relevance here, because the use of anathemas, bannings, and excommunications to enforce a rigidly controlled intellectual discipline inside the church reveals an institution that has yet to come to terms with basic ideas like freedom of conscience and the dialectical nature of rational inquiry. As we saw in our consideration of Spinoza, the very idea of constitutional democracy begins with the insight that government exists to protect the interior freedom of citizens to be different from one another an to cling if they choose to opposite notions of truth. The political implementation of this insight requires a separation of church and state, since the state's purpose is to shield the citizen's conscience from impositions by any religious entity, and we saw that Spinoza's arrival at this position came as a direct consequence of his family's experience with the inquisition. The Roman Catholic church has repudiated the inquisition but it continues to hold ideas that produced it. The Vatican's panic-driven sequence of condemnations in the 19th century, condemnations of socialism, communism, rationalism, pantheism, subjectivism, modernism, even of Americanism, added up to a resolute denunciation of everything that we mean by democracy. From the standpoint of the hill overlooking the Tiber all of this was simply an effort to defend the key idea that the worlds of science, culture, politics, and learning, all worlds that could easily be associated with jews, were apparently conspiring to attack. Spinoza himself had seemed to attack it, the idea that there is one objective and absolute truth, and that its custodian is the Catholic church. Again, we think of the papal apology of March 2000. That was the beginning of a process, not the completion of one, because while John Paul II confessed the sin of "the use of violence that some have resorted to in the service of the truth" (thinking of the inquisition), the apology did not confront the implications of the still-maintained idea of the truth. Universalist claims for Jesus as the embodiment of the one objective and absolute truth launched from the battlement-like pulpits of the basilicas have landed with explosions in the streets for centuries. Nothing demonstrates the link joining philosophical assumptions, esoteric theology, and political conflict better than the course of the church's own christology, its thoelogy of Jesus. The violence of heresy hunts in the 4th and 5th centuries is tied to that story, the theology of Jesus, and so at its other end is the violence of Europe's imperial colonizers who even into the 20th century felt free to decimate native populations, poor devils, because they were heathens. Hanging from the line joining those two posts, in addition to the inquisition, are the religious wars waged in the name of Jesus not only against heathens and against jews but against other christians who believed, but wrongly. Underlying all of this is a question that the Roman Catholic church has yet to confront and that the third Vatican Council must confront, a question the answer to which shapes attitudes toward democracy, a question the answer to which has profound relevance to the churche's past and future relations with jews. It is a question to which jews themselves must respond in regarding new corrections of their own attitudes of monotheism, election, and chosenness equivalent to the Catholic correction required by the church's self-understanding in Carl Reiner's phrase "as itself as the absolute religion". It is the question that was put most famously by Pontius Pilate in the Pilate-exonerating Gospel of St. John. This was an instance before Pilate told the Jews that Jesus was innocent, preparing the ground for the Jewish condemnation and the permanent Jewish bloodguilt: "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice," Jesus told Pilate, to which the Roman replied, "What is truth?" Latin philosophy had long answered that question by appealing to an objective and external order. We have seen that various traditions claiming Plato and Aristotle as patrons gave shape to the Christian theologies. The dualism of Christian platonism posited a divide between nature and grace, with grace the realm of truth, approachable only through faith. The more rationalistic tradition of Thomas Aquinas affirmed the compatability of nature and grace. The knowability of God through reason. But in asserting the absolute character of truth, Thomas Aquinas took note of the problem that occurs when a contingent nature-bound creature attempts to perceive the truth. Truth, he said, is perceived in the mode of the perceiver; human perception can take in absolute truth, but not absolutely. Thus Thomas makes a modest claim for human knowing, with room for ambiguity, which means with room for diverse claims made in the name of truth. Alas, this aspect of Thomas Aquinas' subtlety would be lost to the Catholic church in the rigidities to the response to the reformation.

Religious pluralism, which is the ground of democracy, begins with the acknowledgement of the universal impossibility of direct knowledge of God. The immediate consequence of this universal ignorance is that we should regard each other respectfully and lovingly, but our clear statement of christian openness to the other is its own revelation. In the Epistle of John God is defined as, most simply, love, but it is also true that that epistle is attributed to the author of the fourth gospel. The fourth gospel was written apparently about the turn of the first century. It was addressed to Christian communities that were riven with the dusputes that had come after the destruction of the temple, and with the first serious conflict between what was becoming known as "the Church" and the synagogue. This plea, that we think of God as love, whatever else it referred to, concerned the tragedy that was then beginning to unfold and it concerned the tragedy that was embodied above all in the Gospel of John, for it was that gospel which more than any other demonized the Jews and the tragedy is underscored further by the fact that in that same letter of John, as if understanding what was already at stake in this conflict berween the followers of Jesus who identified themselves as Jews and those who had begun to identify themselves as something else. John begged hi readers to not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and who murdered his brother. Why did he murder his brother? Because of his own deeds which were evil and his brothers' were righteous. This tragedy, in other words, of murder must forever warn us of cheap talk of love. It is all too soon and all too easily that the followers of Jesus were able and ready to identify themselves as the sons of Able and to identify Cain with Jews. That sin, embedded in the gospel itself, is proof of why the Christian church in general and the Catholic church in particular needs democracy, for the assumption of democratic politics, in addition to the assumption that all citizens can contribute to the truth-seeking conversation, is that all citizens also are constitutionally incapable of truth-seeking and steadfast loving. God may be love, but the polis is not, and neither is the church.

So we come full circle and we recall that the language of love is often used by those who are in power while the language of justice is used by those who suffer the abuse of power. The language of love is not enough because the language of love does not protect us from our failures to love. Only the language of justice does that. Democracy assumes that a clear-headed assesment of the flaws of members extends to everyone, but even leaders of democracies, especially in the United States perhaps, salt their speeches with Christian chauvinism, with an excluding religiosity, assuming that a democratic polity could be called univical (no voices, that is) for religious minorities or those of no religion. And that, finally, is why a democracy assumes that everyone must be protected from the unchecked, uncritized, unregulated power of everybody else, including the well-meaning leader. The universal experience of imperfection, cynitude and self-centeredness is the pessimistic ground of democratic hope. We saw that in Spinoza's story, which was after all the story of a man constructing the democratic ideal out of the cruelties that were inflicted in the name of God. The church's own experience, in particular its gravest sin in relation to love, proves how desperately in need of democratic reform the Catholic church is. Vatican III must therefore turn the church away from monarchy and toward democracy, as the Roman Catholic people have, in fact, already done. Vatican III must restore the broken authority of the church by locating authority in the place where it belongs, which is with the people, through whom in this faith the holy spirit breathes. Vatican III must affirm that democracy itself is the lates gift from God, who operates in history, and the only way for the church to affirm democracy is by embracing it. The old disputes between popes and kings over who appoints bishops was resolved in favor of the pope, but bishops now should be chosen by the people they serve. The clerical caste, a vestige of the medieval court, should be eliminated. Vatican III must establish equal rights for women in every sphere, a system of checks and balances, due process, legislative norms designed to assure equality for all instead of superiority for some, freedom of expression, and above all, freedom of conscience. All of this must be established within the church, not because the time of liberalism has arrived, but because this long and sorry story of church hatred of Jews only lays bare the structures of oppression that must be dismantled once and for all, and not only the sad and sorry story of the hatred of Jews.

Thank you.

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